I was moping this morning. The last few weeks have been easy, and I don’t do well when not challenged. I have a life anyone would envy. I work part time, write, take care of the house, and make sure the kid gets to where he needs to go from time to time. I have had plenty of time in recent years to write a book, about a hundred or more of these essays, and publish two books of poems, with another on the way.
Meanwhile, this comes with a cost. My wife works like an animal, something I’m trying now to alleviate. My search for work has turned up plenty of opportunities for $15 to $20 an hour, but why go to work for someone else when I’m more or less making that now just loafing around and goofing off. I sort of—sort of—look forward to getting a job. Nothing generates material for this write than working with other people. They don’t know it, but they give me poems, stories, and relationships to write about. While I have applied for many jobs in recently, I’m either overqualified or have not fit the profile—loners and self-achievers rarely do. So, I sit in my house living the life of the mind.
That’s not to say that I don’t have things to do. School takes quite a bit of my attention, and my students need guidance and care. Life at the college is always a challenge, no matter how easy it seems to me. When I sit back and realize just how much I put into my classes, I feel a little less guilty about having the time to read and write. Still, I have become a practiced professional at the teaching game. I know my lectures and update them with the latest scholarship. I can now walk into a class and give my 100 percent without having to do more than give cursory attention to my notes.
But in the last couple of weeks, I’ve struggled to find things to write about. Much of what comes into these columns or essays or blog posts or whatever comes from the heart. When I’m not challenged, there doesn’t seem to be much heart to pull from.
Of course, joys and heartache erupt from time to time. They are always worthy of a few words and seem to come just when I need them. For instance, I was mooning around this morning when my good friend Ivo called from Germany. I’m planning a trip to visit my elderly parent figures, Josef and Marlies Frick, in the little town of Wawern near Trier. The journey is principally about them, and I will spend more of my time with them. But at the tail end of the trip, I will stop in Koblenz to see Ivo.
The simple cheer and goodwill in his voice really livened up the day. With a friendly phone call under my belt, I decided to tackle some yard work. It’s never really all that much. In the spring, Nick and I spend about six hours total getting the garden and yard I shape for the coming year—pruning grape vines, cleaning out the rain garden, cutting back the wild false indigo which has become something of a friendly menace. Today, we took the shears and approached the wild false indigo. We used the stump killer on the Siberian Elms that would take over the place with just a little inattention. Then, armed with RoundUp, I sprayed the Japanese honeysuckle, the bane of my existence.
It was an hour in the sun with my son. No big deal, but enough to break the funk that has plagued me lately. Now, I sit here thinking of all kinds of things to write about. The most pressing, of course, is how lack of challenge leaves me wondering what this–life, existence, domestic affairs–is all about.
I suffer a kind of shell shock. (I hesitate to use the term PTSD. That should be reserved for people really traumatized and hobbled from it.) Life used to be one series of disasters after another. When I was a kid, the violent and arbitrary nature of my home life kept me on my toes. There wasn’t a day that went by when I didn’t start with wide-eyes and the hope that things would be different all the sudden. They weren’t, but that didn’t stop me from being optimistic.
Then, in my teen and young adult lives, I drank. Every day was a struggle of my own making. Alcohol put to bed any problems I experienced with undiagnosed mental illness. It smoothed off the peaks of mania and eased the bone-crushing depression. When I moved out on my own and cut ties with the family and my past, I suffered the woes of working low-wage jobs without any kinds of challenges at all. I would have failed in the face of them anyway. That’s what drinkers do. Still, every day presented some insurmountable obstacle I would make a run at. Unsuccessful in conquering it, I said to myself, oh, well, and dove into a twelve pack and pint of alcohol.
Then came the sober years. Trying to get back all thee wasted time, all the lessons I missed as a teen and young adult, presented work that broke my heart and led to major disappointment. Still, the reward was worth the effort. I look back now and realize how much I’ve gained from the little bit of work I put in.
A long period of trial followed, as I tried to build a career, be a single father, and then learn how to deal with someone at close quarters in a marriage. Worried all the time, I was convinced I was going to ruin my kids, do something that would cause my wife to leave me, or suffer some financial setback that would put me out on the street.
Those challenges came. I didn’t break my kids. I stayed married. We prospered. I created my own obstacles—self-employment, taking on a doctorate, working at getting published. For years, I labored at life believing that no matter how great things were, something would certainly occur and suddenly we’d be ruined. I kept waiting for, in the old cliché, the other shoe to drop. It never did or, if it did, I dealt with it like I deal with any problem that faces me—one bite, one thing, one conundrum at a time until I solved the problem.
The last five years since I earned my doctorate have been salad days. Nothing has forced us off the map. The finances have been in order. I have sold published and sold books, held workshops, and continue as a teacher. No shoes dropping. I’m not even scared of that anymore. We could lose a job, encounter a legal problem, suffer loss in the retirement accounts. And as long as we could make our extraordinarily reasonable mortgage payment, everything would be all right.
The challenge that faces me then is the one of myself. Today, a little vitamin D producing sunshine got me out of my bubble. I can’t wait to see what the rest of the day will bring.